The shelter, if it could be called that was little more than a shack made out of twigs and earth, a one room apartment that was one part hearth and rest of it was straw. As houses went the slave quarters of a dung merchant was a step up.
As the contents of the bot bubbled softly, Het'sica, mumbled about the lack of good mushrooms. She toiled aimlessly, using her giant wooden spoon to check the rat meat. The old woman continued to scrap the copper container with her spoon, not for the first time mumbling about gods and fools.
Their guest tried not to directly look at the lazy eyed crone who stirred the huge copper pot, fearing that she would earn the witch's attention. She was a young girl of sixteen winters, her face also looked as though it was constantly sad.
“How is that stew coming, sister?” Petit shouted back as she preceded to ground the herbs into particles.
“It would come along better if we had some radishes.” Het'sica hissed. She bent down and sniffed the concoction, her wrinkled and sour face twisted in disgust, “If you're looking for a taste of me soup, girl, you better off walking away.”
“I'm. I’m fine madam.” The girl whispered, trying to make herself smaller.
Het'sica didn't blame her, she had made better.
With practiced care, Petit put the contents of her crucible into a small earthen jug and held it to her chest. The forty five year old woman’s smile might have been friendly but her eyes told a warning. “Payment girl.”
The girl nodded and took out two chicken eggs. The exchange complete the timid thing hurriedly left without saying a thank you.
Poor girl. Het'sica thought as she stirred her and Petit's dinner. Doesn't know that she isn't the one whose barren. Or that's what the girls he visits tell me. Her tongue scraped across her cracked and worn lips at the thought of eggs for breakfast.
Through the dark and garbage encrusted street a man walked uncontested. By his side a pair of soldiers, their spears held firm trailed beside him.
The girl who had been exiting the witch's hovel saw the man's clothes, calculated his status and his followers and she paled. She turned her hood towards the non-existent wind and tried to make herself invisible.
Barnus ignored the dirty thing that was cowering like a mouse before a lion. He approached the witch's door but before he let himself in like he would any other common house, he considered the consequences of his sudden intrusion and knocked.
He had not done this out of some reverence or superstitious fear of being cursed by the crusty pair, but that he recalled his last visit to this run down mud hut and his entering without warning. He cringed at the memory. While he had nothing against the crone's life choices, it had been two days before he could eat anything and a month before Barnus could sleep with another woman.
“Come in dear child,” Petit said, her voice as sweet as poison.
Barnus did so, getting ready to cover his eyes should he see so much as an naked ankle.
Seeing her latest customer the senior member of the pair grinned evilly, “Well if it isn't little Barnus. Don't tell us you fancy another free show, you naughty boy.” The man's disgusted expression was the highlight of Petit's tired day. “What shall it be this time? Another cream for a rash? Fertility medicine for Lord Marus's mistress?”
Her eyes sparkled with mischief, “Or do you need another little something for big rats?”
Barnus sniffed in contempt. The two old women marketed themselves as sisters but their relationship was far more intimate. He also knew that they were not as old as they appeared.
The younger, Het'sica was horse faced and her eye made it appear as if she was looking in two different direction. She was the brains of the operation, clever and with an encyclopaedic knowledge of plants and medicines.
Her lover, Petit was the salesman of their little home business. In her young age the woman had been a high profile prostitute, though you wouldn't suspect it now. Petit had not aged well and rumour had it was that her mind was slipping. Growing up on streets had this tendency to make a girl age quickly.
“There is another problem that requires acolytes of Istate's wisdom.” Barnus said.
“How can we help you Barnus and your master? You know I have done all I can for master Nikolajs. I can provide something to make him sleep but even my skills are limited.”
Barnus sneered at the witch's useless apologies. “Have you heard about what has happened at Istate's statue?”
Het'sica frowned, “What statue? Are you speaking of the one behind Jupiter's temple?”
“Yes,” Barnus confessed.
Het'sica sucked in a breath, “Temples need a blessing for a new one, huh?” When she had been young she had gone to that garden to pray and pull weeds along with her mother. It was blasphemy how the bastards at Jupiter let it become the wreak it was now.
Thoughts of some drunk or childish oaf breaking it for giggles did not give her hope in humanity or the God's wisdom in their creation.
“Then you haven't heard. A...” Barnus hesitated to find the right words, “Wondering bartender took it upon himself to... repair your goddess's image and tend to her garden. His most wise, Urilus Marus wishes to know your opinion of both the statue and the individual.”
“Are you drunk?” Het'sica yelled. Nothing about what this fool said made sense. Her eyes narrowed, “Repair how? Did he break it? Or did he steal it and put it in his tavern like some trophy?”
The right hand man to Senator Urilus Marus, rubbed his head. “Things have grown complicated and as you are a noted priestess of Istate, your opinion is required.”
“Ha!” Petit just had to laugh at that. “A woman's opinion mattering in this city?”
“What do you want Barnus?” Het'sica was keeping her voice professional but inside she was raging and wanting blood. “You want me to forgive this... bartender for defacing my goddess’ likeness? You think that because I'm not as rich as those boy lovers at Jupiter that I will smile and sing my gratitude?”
Barnus was doing his best not to shout at Het'scia and make her even more annoyed and stubborn. He threw a handful of coins upon the floor their yellow surface reflected the hearth's fire.
Seeing the fortune in front of her, Petit fell upon the coins. “Do not worry, my lord, I will have her strip and dance if need be.”
“Petit!” her lover hissed.
Their guest grit his teeth, “I am to take you to your goddess's statue and have you bless the site. Your rooms have been paid for as has your honest opinion on your goddess' likeness.”
“Um,” Petit raised her head and sounded worried, “he wants her honest opinion?” she eyed Het'sica warily.
Her partner understood her nervousness. While Het'scia knew of plants and their medicinal properties, there was a reason why Petit spoke to the customers and did the negotiations.
“Enough prattling,” Banus was no longer amused, “come before my men drag you both on your knees.”
Being asked so nicely the two witches grumbled as they smothered their fire and buried their pot of stew for later consumption. The only way to secure anything in this neighbourhood was to hide it in mud and faecal matter, and even then their was no guarantee.
The world outside was growing dark. While soldiers walked the city in the search for thieves and screams, their routines were well known and they mostly orbited the markets and rich districts. Within the slums their numbers were light and their patrols scarce.
Even Barnus with his armed guards grew nervous as they marched through the streets at night. This was the time that good little boys and girls went to sleep, and the naughty boys came out to play.
Het'sica spoke to ease the tension, but she knew from cruel experience that one needed to respect some streets like you would respect a snake. “Why did you come to me? I am not the only member of Istate's cult that you can bully around, my lord” she added as an after thought.
“You will see.” Was all that Barnus said.
It took just under an hour but the two women realise what the senator’s lackey had meant by that.
The reason that Barnus had come to the most filthiest, garbage filled, decrepit part of the sums to pick up a herbalist and a greying midwife became obvious. It was because the place was already filled with most of the witches, mediums, and alchemists in the city.
Petit stopped as she saw the witch goddess' garden and knew immediately that something supernatural had happened.
Dill, mint, rosemary. Mothers, herbalists, cooks, prostitutes, assassins, and midwives, dozens of women and a few men were harvesting the plants as best they could without destroying the delicate ecosystem.
Waiting by the road, a group of curious onlookers watched and whispered at what had once been a weed infested pit, but was now a welcoming paradise. Barnus and Petit watched as an awestruck Het'sica bent down and rubbed her wrinkled fingers over the green grass which could only be described as unbelievable.
There were no brown spots, no places of naked dirt and no sign that they had met with a cutting tool. It was as if the whole patch of grass had grown at the exact same pace at the exact same time. Except for the foot prints it was perfect.
In a daze, Het'sica took off her sandals and allowed her naked feet to touch the grass. As if stepping on broken glass she carefully moved forward and not so gently pushed away the men and women harvesting the herbs.
Four women were kneeling before their goddess, three were clothed while the forth prostrated her naked form towards the visage of Istate. Het'sica examined the statue and was at a loss.
While the model was a little too beautiful, and she was a little too in the open, and the statue bore none of the traditional items of her goddess' office, Het'sica had to admit that she didn't entirely hate it. The staff was a nice touch and they could always stick a torch on the other hand.
“How?” she whispered as she saw the intricate way that the branches twisted and converged, creating the illusion of a living woman.
Istate's follower looked down at prostrating women, thought about undressing and decided against it. Her goddess, while big on ceremonies and appearance was also a wise and practical entity.
Het'sica knelt and for the first time in years, offered a true prayer to her goddess, blessing this ground to protect it from evil and to guide the lost spirits to the next world.
Done, she moved to a mint bush, ate a leaf, and gathered her sandals. Petit and Barnus were waiting for her. In a serious tone she said, “Show me who did this,”
They needed to wait for several other witches who were under the Senator's loving thumb before Barnus brought them a few blocks away in an establishment designed for pilgrims. Inns and taverns were expensive to run, maintain, and required management which required their patrons to have money and the people running it to care.
The place was little more than two stables rubbing against one another, one for the beasts of burden and one for their horses and donkeys. You could tell straight away what the priests of Jupiter thought about their patrons as the entire structure looked to be made from twigs that were glued together by prayers.
Many of the witches sighed in exhaustion, when they had been told that the bartender had fit the bill for their night's stay, they had pictured actually sleeping in a bed.
Het'scia gave Barnus a hard stare, “Your lord is so generous in his coin,” she said sarcastically.
“You are all very welcomed to walk home if you so dare, hag.” Barnus said.
One of the women looked back out across the streets where light was scarce. A forest filled with wild beasts and a lion's den would seem like a more forgiving place.
A strange sound filled the air as the group of women and men came closer to the lazily constructed shelter. The instrument sounded like a harp but it was somehow it was a contradiction of itself.
The strings were harsher and stronger, and yet there was a softness to it. It was filled with so much emotion that the listeners thought that several people were playing at once.
People lined the entrance of the shelter, their numbers spilling out in the street as cheers and laughter filled the inside.
Barnus shouted for the smelly commoners to leave but only some obeyed, most were captivated by the melody, soaking it in like a flower might the kiss of a sun.
From in side a man shouted to the crowd, “People of Thebes, I'm afraid that this place is getting a little too small for this party. Do you want me to stop playing?”
The man shouted, “You got it. Istate, Hermonia, Jana. Bottoms up ladies. Jump on those tables up there in Mount Kinumojo, and show us how you freaky goddesses PARTTTTTY!!!”
There was a blast of sound and the street vibrated. Het'scia cursed and held onto Barnus to keep from falling, “What was...” She was interrupted.
The sound intensified, the music gaining. From inside there were screams and outside it wasn't much better. The ground shook as the dirt was assaulted by plants and trees which grew and an unbelievable rate.
Branches and tentacle-like roots burst free of the stubborn ground and assaulted the walls of the shelter. Several witches attempted to run but unnaturally bright light saturated the area and split the night.
Hot water stuck Het'scia and Petit in the faces, the lovers closed their eyes as their skin was showered in a geyser of summer rain which waged a holy way and their dirty skin.
Blind, scared, and paralysed by some unseen force, the witches were at the mercy of this supernatural maelstrom. After four minutes passed the song finally relented as did the shaking ground and the obnoxious hot rain.
Petit blew out a stream of water and coughed as did several others. She got down on her knee and grasped the now bone dry dirt. The water was evaporating as if the ground was was a hot plate. “What in the Gods' name was that?” she sputtered.
Het'scia couldn't answer. She pushed the free strands of her face and blinked when she saw the building that she and the others of Istate's flock had been standing in front of.
The once crumbling and smelly shed had transformed in minutes. Thick tree trunks now made up the shell of the structure but it was not just its haul, the building itself had grown by several levels transforming into a five story apartment block.
Windows, balconies, water spouts, and a chimney. It was a structure that almost dwarfed the opposing temples.
The people in the street looked up in wonder as they saw the goddess of harvest laying on top of a table, happily drinking a jug of what assumed to be wine. Jana, the goddess of poetry was naked and was in the process of swinging her dress around like a drunken idiot. Meanwhile, Istate was leaning heavily on her staff and was holding her head.
“Look at me!” an alchemist shouted.
It was then that everyone took a second to admire themselves. The magical rains that had nearly drowned everyone had not only cleaned their flesh but it had also healed them.
Het'scia and Petit looked at one another.
Petit had gone from a dirty woman who was dressed in little more than patched up rags into wizened beauty. Her skin was the colour of fresh cream, her body stronger, her greying hair as lustrous as silk. Her eyes now twinkled as her mind became less clouded and her grasp on what was real and what was memory tightened.
“Het'scia. Your eye.” Petit whispered.
Het'scia put her hand on her lazy eyes and only now did the witch realise what was so different. She ran over to a puddle and gazed down at her reflection.
What stared back at her was an forty something woman, but while her age hadn't changed her overall appearance made her appear younger than she had been only minutes ago. Her skin had turned from worn and weather to strong and supple, her hair was as black as charcoal. The years of toil and heartbreak that she had suffered softened.
More, the magical waters that she had suffered had realigned her bad eye.
From inside the now renovated pilgrim hut, the voice called out, “Let's give it up to the goddesses.”
Born in Australia I am a late bloomer when it came to books. I started writing when my grandfather died and it just sort of turned into a hobby.
I like science fiction, but not space opera. I like fantasy but I am picky when it comes to epic and urban types. I try to stay away from vampires, zombies and romance novels when I can.